Social Apps Timeline and Snap’s Spectacles

I’ve often noted how many social apps seem to follow a similar thread or timeline as they build out their feature set and evolve their products. The same elements often show up in a similar order, making the evolution of such apps and services fairly predictable over time. But since many major apps have now been through most of that standard timeline, things are starting to get more interesting. Snapchat’s rebranding of itself and launch of its Spectacles product is a great example of that.

Social Apps Timeline

The diagram below shows what I consider to be the standard evolution most social apps go through over time, with increasingly rich forms of content being enabled on the app or service as users and their usage begins to mature. Not all apps start at the top left but, wherever apps start, they typically move rightward through these same steps in the same order. My original version of this timeline had just the first three steps and third party content but, over the last couple of years, the fourth step along the main timeline has become more interesting at the video stage:


Consider the major apps that have gone through this transition:

  • Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg has said on earnings calls and at Mobile World Congress this year, “Most of the content 10 years ago was text, and then photos, and now it’s quickly becoming videos…” Not only has Facebook evolved in terms of the kind of content people are able to share but the balance of content actually being shared has quickly moved in that direction too, which helps to explain what makes this transition compelling – the increasing richness of the content makes it more desirable and creates greater (and longer) engagement. More recently, Facebook has invested heavily in the creation and consumption of 360° and live videos too
  • Instagram – Instagram was defined in its early years by its laser focus on photo sharing (and the square format) but has since evolved several times as it added first very short videos and then lifted the length limit on videos and enabled formats other than square for both photos and videos
  • Snapchat – as with Instagram, Snapchat began with a focus on photos, not text, and evolved from there. It’s added richness to both photos and videos over time, with drawing and writing on pictures and Lenses for video most recently
  • Twitter – as a service began with a heavy link to text messaging, Twitter was, by default, focused on verbal, rather than visual, content from the get-go but, over time, it too has evolved into both photography and video, with Moments combining the two media in interesting ways, and Periscope, Vine, and its various live video partnerships focused on video

As well as the direct social sharing aspects around these increasingly rich forms of content, these services have also increasingly enabled third party content from brands and content owners as well. Facebook Pages, corporate Instagram and Twitter accounts, and the Discover tab and branded Snapchat handles have all introduced content which comes from sources other than users’ friends. The nature and composition of that content increasingly mirrors the same evolution of formats as we see with user-generated content.

A break in the timeline

So far, so good. The timeline mostly works for these major social apps. But what we’ve seen over the past year or two – and again this past weekend – is a departure from the timeline in that these companies are starting to break out of their apps and push into hardware, at least in the case of Facebook and Snapchat. Facebook was first to go, with a focus on a particular form of immersive video (VR) and its Oculus acquisition. This purchase was a sort of double bet on even more immersive video on the one hand and a candidate for the next generation of computing platforms after smartphones on the other. Snapchat’s management, meanwhile, began positioning it as a camera company in April of this year. Snap Inc. has now fully embraced that concept as its main identity officially as it launches Spectacles, its own first foray out of the app world and into hardware.

All of this raises questions about whether hardware becomes an inevitable next step in the timeline once companies get to the latter stages of the content evolution. Apple and other companies have famously embraced the maxim that, if you’re really serious about software, you need to build your own hardware. But is the same true for being serious about content sharing too? If so, which is more important to own – capture or consumption hardware? Facebook and Snapchat have so far made different bets on this question but I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see them end up in much the same place. What about Instagram, Twitter, and other social apps? Do they also need to make similar acquisitions? Instagram can obviously benefit from whatever investments Facebook makes in this area but is there something to be said for branding the hardware and making it exclusive? That’s another bet Snap is making which Facebook is not – though Facebook and Oculus will own the interface, they won’t own the content.

For all these reasons and more, the next phase of the development of social apps is going to be even more interesting than what’s come up to now. We’ve seen how easy it can be to replicate (at least on paper) competitors’ features – Facebook cloned Snapchat with its Poke app (which almost no one remembers) but has also more recently cloned Snapchat’s Stories features in Instagram (apparently with more success, if my feed is anything to go by). Really good hardware, though, is tough to copy in the same way. So this could open up an interesting new competitive dynamic between these companies. That should make it really fun to watch how all this plays out over the next few years.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

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